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Air pollution and crop yields

Neela Mukherjee discusses the impacts and policy implications of air pollution on crop yields in northern India.

The author is a development consultant based in New Delhi, India.

Farmers’ perspectives on air pollution and agriculture in urban and peri-urban areas were the subject of a research project recently conducted in India. The field research was carried out in 14 villages in Varanasi and 13 villages in Faridabad between August 1998 and November 1999.

Varanasi is in Uttar Pradesh district in northeastern India and Faridabad is in Haryana district just south of New Delhi. The villages selected experience a range of different types of air pollution.

Air pollution in urban and peri-urban areas results from both urbanization and industrialization. Studies show that polluted air usually consists of a mixture of pollutants which can adversely affect agriculture in many complex ways. Air pollution has a major impact on the productivity and efficiency of both people and nature. It poses a serious health hazard leading to higher levels of morbidity, premature mortality, chronic bronchitis and other respiratory infections.

Participatory research methods were used in the project. The research was geared towards listening to the primary stakeholders, around 1200 women and men farmers, thus learning from them about the impacts of air pollution on agriculture, especially in and near urban areas. Listening sessions were conducted with groups of women and men farmers using relevant ‘visual’ techniques such as participatory mapping, scoring and ranking, and Venn diagramming.

The farmers’ perspectives are alternative views on pollution and are important from their positions as primary stakeholders. Their views come from direct field experience, not necessarily matching with the formal or the expert view on the subject. It is important to know the farmers’ perspective for both realistic analysis and for policy interventions.

In the villages under study, agriculture, both directly and indirectly, was found to be the most important source of livelihood. Between 50 and 90 per cent of the villagers were dependent on agricultural activities. Farming provided food, fodder, fuel and employment to the farmers and to landless labourers.

In the villages of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, the farmers grow different kinds of rabi and kharif crops. Their rabi crops include main crops such as wheat and other vegetables such as radish, cauliflower, chana/peas, potato, onion, garlic and spinach. Their kharif crops include paddy which is the main crop as well as maize, jowar, arhar, cauliflower and brinjal. Multiple cropping is practised. In the rabi season, for example, there is early cultivation of different vegetables for a quick income which is followed by cultivation of wheat for mainly personal consumption.

In Faridabad in Haryana, wheat is the principal crop grown for consumption. Vegetables are grown extensively throughout the year mainly as a cash crop. Livestock rearing and milk vending are other very important activities for the farmers of Faridabad. In fact, milk from livestock is such a lucrative source of livelihood that one major fodder crop, jowar, is grown from May to September. The months from November to May are devoted to growing wheat, a part of which is also used for fodder.

Farmers in both Varanasi and Faridabad stated that agricultural activities face a large number of constraints. When grouped as problem clusters, the main constraints were related to: weather; weeds; pests and insects; animals; pollution; disease; land and external inputs; water; infrastructure and credit; and institutional arrangements.

The farmers described weather/climate-related constraints as a problem cluster much beyond their control. During May to July, hot winds can damage creeper vegetable plants such as cucumber, melon and bottle gourd. Sudden hailstorms affected crops and damaged them, with maximum damage occurring in their infant stage of growth. The farmers also described how unseasonal and heavy rains accelerated the growth of weeds amongst crops such as wheat, mustard, jowar and bajira at different stages of growth. Excess rains also damaged standing crops and lightning damaged vulnerable mustard flowers.

It was reported that a late monsoon resulted in up to 25 per cent crop damage while excess rains could cause as much as 40-50 per cent crop damage. In Varanasi, the monsoon is considered the worst period for farming. Not only does the daily labourer find it difficult to get work but the rains make village roads muddy and impassable, thus constraining mobility on a daily basis.

Perspectives from Varanasi

In the villages participating in this research most households are primarily engaged in agriculture which forms the backbone of their livelihoods. Agriculture may be practised in a village or residents of one village will go to another providing agricultural labour or for share cropping. Agriculture is thus of prime importance to the local communities at Varanasi in both the urban and peri-urban areas.

In any discussions about agriculture, the women and men farmers would be naturally referring to crop and vegetable cultivation and livestock rearing. As expressed by them, the present role of agriculture is not only in terms of overall livelihood, employment and income generation but is also in terms of the critical support it provides for overcoming seasonal poverty, in so far as food and livelihood security on a seasonal basis is concerned.

Agriculture provides a source of multiple livelihoods. It is a source of both direct and indirect employment. It serves as an asset base, for consumption, for income, savings, investment, collateral, as a source of risk coverage and provides raw materials and markets to the villagers. In terms of income, agricultural activities serve a dual purpose, as a source for household consumption and as either the main or supplementary income. In the villages studied, for example, households consumed mainly the cereals grown whereas their vegetables were mainly marketed.

Trends show an occupational shift from agriculture to services even though there is considerable dependence of villagers on agriculture. There are three proximate factors for the declining role of agriculture:

  • constraints and risks in agriculture are on the rise thus affecting returns;
  • the manufacturing and service sectors are providing more jobs; and,
  • agricultural land is being disposed of for non-agricultural purposes.

The women and men in Varanasi described the sources of local pollution as generally being more attributable to brick kilns, domestic coal stoves and garbage than to vehicle pollution (in contrast to the case in Faridabad).

In general, the village communities were more able to relate the direct impacts of air pollution with their health problems rather than with their agricultural problems. Unless, that is, a source of pollution such as from a brick kiln was quite close to their fields. The researchers observed that the incidence of pest, insects and weeds is noticed more in the villages where dependence on farming is great and which are situated in an ozone-pollutant zone.

In a number of villages in Varanasi the people were acutely aware of adverse effects from, in particular, brick kiln emissions. In general, they reported that orchards were greatly affected. For example, mango fruits blackened in colour, both papaya and mango lost considerable sweetness, and there is a loss in mango and berry yields.

The women and men groups in the villages of Varanasi listed a number of diseases and illnesses which they and their children suffer from. There has been an increased incidence of coughs, respiratory diseases, stomach-related diseases, skin diseases, eye infections, tuberculosis and malaria. Many children are victims not only of some of these diseases but also suffer from nutrition-related problems.

The village groups relate these diseases to a mix of factors. Causes include the increased use of fertilizers and chemicals in agricultural production which can cause stomach-related disease and illnesses and respiratory diseases due to a change of weather. However, not many can perceive any impact of air pollution causing serious impairment of health.

The villagers of Varanasi suggested the following ‘do-ables’ for action by government:

  • ensuring an adequate supply of electricity for irrigating crops;
  • providing subsidized fertilizers and medicines;
  • taking disciplinary action against manufacturers of duplicate medicines; and,
  • making loans available at concessionary rates.

The researchers in this study also suggested a number of ‘do-ables’ based on personal observations and interactions with the villagers. The list includes:

  • the need to formulate policies that promote sustainable agriculture with agro-economic processes that reduce the impact of air pollution on crop production;
  • the benefits of green manure should be disseminated;
  • adoption of cooperative farming or consolidated farming practices;
  • the need for policy dialogue between policy makers and farmers on the aspects of food security vis-à-vis food production; and,
  • the need to examine the conflicting issues between protection of wild life and the protection of agriculture as a livelihood.

Perspectives from Faridabad

Farmers of Faridabad, in the urban and peri-urban areas under consideration, perceived agriculture to be of great significance and see a clear link between land, livestock, family and quality of life. Agriculture in most villages is the main source of livelihood, directly or indirectly. It is also the primary source of food grains.

Farming provides food, fodder and fuel for the farmers. It is also extremely important for those who are landless and depend on the agricultural labour market and for those who practice share cropping. As such, agricultural cultivation acts as a ‘buffer’ during periods of other seasonal unemployment.

Farmers in the villages of Faridabad use tractors for ploughing fields, for sowing seeds and for irrigation and the harvesting of crops. Small farmers employ labourers for such activities as the planting of paddy saplings, vegetables and for the harvesting of paddy and wheat.

People in the villages did stress that they perceive increasing problems with agriculture as their source of livelihood. According to the farmers, the quality of their land and subsequently, their crops, has deteriorated with the use of fertilizers and pesticides. The wheat yield, for example, has either remained stagnant or has marginally declined over the past years. At the same time, there has been a decrease in the size of the wheat grain with an accompanying loss in both taste and colour.

Two major forms of pollution are prevalent in Faridabad as described by the local village communities who took part in this research. The two forms are basically related to air and to water.

Air pollution is linked to industrial estates in the nearby towns of Ballavgarh and Faridabad and is vehicle-related and factory-related. The industrial belts of these two towns are close to the villages and smoke and other pollutants from the factories pollute the air and settle on crops thus affecting yields.

The incidence of air pollution has risen considerably due to the increase in the number of vehicles over the last 20 years. The pollution has led to smoke and dust hanging in the air which affects crop production. In one village in Faridabad, it was reported that factory fumes are particularly bad in the winter months when deposits fall on the wheat crops. If this pollution continues for a month or more, the size of the wheat grain is reduced and this, in turn, affects its market price.

Pollution from local factories and industrial units such as brick kilns, thermocol, plastic and cement factories has affected the health of humans, crops and animals. In one village in Faridabad, the people reported that every 15 days waste industrial products are burnt on the road side. The smoke from this is intense and the deposit is visible on the leaves of all the vegetation. It was also noted that when livestock have consumed the affected fodder their milk starts smelling.

Polluted water from industrial units has affected crops in some villages. For example, water in the Agra canal became polluted about one and a half years ago near the village of Sahapur Kalan. Elderly farmers described how this adversely affected crop and vegetable cultivation as well as both taste and nutrition levels.

Community perspectives on the general health status of people in Faridabad villages indicates the prevalence of the impacts of air pollution. This is apart from other common diseases.

Community members were aware of a deterioration in their health in recent years seemingly consistent with rapid industrialization in local areas. There has been a rise in respiratory diseases, in breathlessness, in burning sensations of the throat, the eyes and the nose as well as headaches. There is a higher incidence in the winter months when levels of pollution increase. It is not difficult for many village groups to draw a one-to-one correspondence between local emissions and the physical discomforts and illnesses which they experience. Home medicines do not seem to be effective and so the people are having to spend more on buying remedies. Health of livestock is also affected as air pollution causes indigestion, diarrhoea and even death.

Community members of the villages under study at Faridabad suggested the following ‘do-ables’ expected from the government for overcoming the problems and constraints faced by them and for improving their quality of life by offsetting damage from industrialization and urbanization, enhancing agricultural support systems and strengthening the agricultural support system:

  • construction of houses on agricultural land should be controlled;
  • displaced farmers and other members of the local community must be provided with alternative employment rather than cash compensation;
  • local factories, of the polluting type, should not be given permission to be located near agricultural land and/or within villages;
  • public roads should not be constructed near crop fields as traffic leaves dust deposits on crops together with general pollution;
  • extension officials should meet more farmers in the village and timely supply of seed, fertilizer and rat poison should be ensured;
  • proper facilities should be provided in terms of regular supply of electricity, water and other inputs to encourage land cultivation and the irrigation facility needs to be increased with more canals;
  • prices of agricultural inputs can be controlled by the State;
  • the availability of local, old varieties of crop seeds should be promoted; and,
  • protected animals should be kept in sanctuary.

Overall, different sources and the impacts of air pollution were perceived more in the villages of Faridabad than in those of Varanasi. One obvious reason for this could be that there is a higher level of industrialization in and around the vicinity of Faridabad. There is also a greater level of awareness in the peoples here, likely due to the higher literacy rate of the villagers.

In conclusion

The field researchers undertaking this study considered it imperative to strengthen and educate the awareness of all the communities on the impacts of air pollution.

The government and other decision makers should immediately initiate policy interventions as a means of mitigating the impacts of air pollution.

Further information

Neela Mukherjee, 52/82 Chittaranjan Park (Ground Floor), New Delhi 110019, India. Fax: +91-11-6481824. Email:


This article is based on a report of the project “The Impacts and Policy Implications of Air Pollution on Crop Yields in Developing Countries.”

The project was coordinated by Neela Mukherjee. Members of the research team were Meera Jayaswal, Bratindi Jena, Amitava Mukherjee, Sudipta Ray, Hema Saklani, Sunita Bisht, Nabin Datta Banik, Dr Madhumita, Mr Damodaran, Mr Alok, Dr Alka, Dr Archana, Dr Tyagi and Dr Janaki.

The field research was funded by the UK Department for International Development’s Environment Research Programme. This work was part of a larger research project conducted by the T H Huxley School at the Imperial College of Science Technology and Medicine in collaboration with the International Institute for Environment and Development, London, UK.

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